Take Me Apart: A Novel by Sara Sligar

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That was how it was sometimes, in the archive. Big discoveries sandwiched between trash. The day-to-day touching the phenomenal.

Kate Aitken, now an ex-journalist (copy editor), has a chance for a clean slate, it’s time to leave New York, which has become contaminated for her. Kate’s life has imploded, and a very important man has taken measures to make sure she does not find work anywhere. When Theo Brand, son of famed photographer Miranda Brand, hires her to archive his late mother’s work it is a chance for her to start fresh- in California. Her aunt is there, which is both a good thing and trying. It won’t be easy, not with a woman whose death is surrounded by mystery and rumors, many that follow Theo like a dark shadow. He confesses his mother was a bit of a pack rat, so one never knows what treasure or trash Kate will uncover. Theo himself isn’t the easiest man to figure out, nor the warmest and it certainly doesn’t help when her own aunt is sure he is worse than the locals say. That maybe he was involved in his mother’s mysterious death, despite being a child when she died.

Her own life in a tailspin of sorts, Kate wonders if taking this job makes her vulnerable to danger. Sifting through the house most people would kill to snoop through, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Could the many rumors and conspiracies be born from truth, isn’t that often the case? Doesn’t her own life have its own secrets and lies? Hasn’t she learned that a man can hide his dark nature behind his success, wealth and name? Is she attracted to Theo, or are the intense emotions, racing heart she feels around him a warning? After-all, she knows that attraction and panic often set off the same feelings within a person. Could he be as bad as everyone claims?  It’s hard to think so seeing him interact with his children, even if her presence seems to upset something in him.

Excavating Miranda Brand’s past is an emotional journey. Despite her awe inspiring talent, behind the artist was a woman who was falling apart, questioning herself, coping with the fragility of her mind. Everything Kate discovers feels like an exposure of a woman who wanted her private life to remain sealed. Art should stand alone, not be influenced by the person behind it. Instead of a contained woman, Kate discovers confessions, and painful admissions. Here was a woman who found mothering challenging and her marriage no better as it was under intense strain. A woman lacking much needed compassion and support, instead had a husband who seemed both exhausted by her needs and competitive over her work. Miranda missed who she was before the life she and her husband Jake created together. What made her decide to leave it, in such a dramatic, horrific fashion? Will Kate uncover more than Theo wants her too?

Their relationship is unbalanced already, Kate arrives with her own future in ruins while Theo appears to be a man who has his life together. There belies a coldness in his desire to wrap up his mother’s life, now that his father is gone and he is free to take charge of the past and all it’s dirty secrets. For Theo, Miranda wasn’t a famous artist who died at the height of her career, she was his mother, at times a distant star physically and mentally. Why does he resent her? Seem to hate her?

Answers may lie in Miranda’s diary, a discovery Kate intends to keep from Theo. It soon becomes obvious he has ulterior motives, could well be misleading and using her- but why? Her own wounds are fresh, the remnants of her own therapy sessions are a lifeboat to cling to as she sorts through Miranda’s past. Kate’s own narrative is as elusive, a thing we glimpse in starts and stops. Everything Miranda was suffering, particularly sensitive information that got out in public, is easy for Kate to relate to- however uncomfortable it feels. There are so many ways a woman is stripped of her armor.

Two women, decades separating them, face metamorphism of the self. This is who I wanted to be, this is who life demanded me to become. For Miranda, her husband is unforgiving, treating her after her unraveling as something he is chained too. Kate’s fall from grace is a different sort of humiliation, an utter failure of the self. There are abuses both women suffer at the hands of men with the upper hand. For women, it is all about how people interpret you, be it your behavior, decisions, weaknesses, mental state or refusal to give in when it’s demanded of you.

Death is silence, but Miranda could still have the last word. Does that frighten Theo? What if the truth challenges the story men, like he and his father, have controlled? What about Kate and her own voice, her own past? Is it wise to get tangled in desire for Theo? What if… what if Miranda was murdered?

What kept me reading was Miranda’s story and how she was mistreated, demeaned and misinterpreted- even after her death. Though the person hardest on her, as is often the case with women, was herself. What it nails is how narrative can alter lives, for better or worse. Sometimes the truth must lie in wait, but it will have it’s pound of flesh. Sometimes it pushes us to be more too. Kate was harder for me to bond with, but Miranda- I think Miranda echoes what many women go through and feel too ashamed to give voice. Theo was important, but he wasn’t the heart of the story for me anymore than the attraction between he and Kate. I was in it for Miranda. You could feel the pain of feeling judged, especially for things you cannot help. How easy it is to fall from grace for showing yourself as a fragile human being and why people try and hide when they feel themselves slipping. The breaking is so much worse when the one who is meant to be your anchor fails you. A strong character in Miranda if the others lacked substance. She was worth reading!

Publication Date: April 28. 2020

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

Sin Eater: A Novel by Megan Campisi

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I only follow that I am not to be hanged or fined. I am to be given a different punishment. 

The punishment May receives for stealing warm bread is to become a sin eater. A clever, original idea for a historical fiction novel, I’ll give Megan Campisi that! Sin eaters, however, are not made up in the writer’s imagination, they actually existed. Said to go back as early as 1600 (in the British isles) it was a job where sins of the dying/dead were consumed in the form of food, hence allowing the sinner a sort of absolution that allowed them into heaven. As is human nature, the sin eaters were outcasts, damned by the very absolution they provided, swallowing poisonous sins. “The sin eater walks among us, Unseen, unheard”…

Once the Makerman places a collar around her neck, so long as she serves faithfully with true piety and obedience, keeping silence, carrying the heavy sins of others to her grave,  her soul may rise to the Maker. Easier said than done. May stumbles home only to learn that her punishment bans her from the life she knew before. No longer will anyone talk to her, not even her own kin, nor will anyone explain to her what she is meant to do. All she knows is she is meant to go to the other. There is another in the village damned just like her.

It is through this other sin eater, also a woman, for only women can eat sins, that May learns the way. Mouth shut, and nothing to look forward to, no husband, no children, not a lover nor friends. It’s like being the walking dead. Soon after she attends a dying man as he confesses sins, and foods are called out to cover each sin. Such as Oat Porridge and dried raisins for holding a grudge and faithlessness. At least there will always be food, she will never starve.

When the Queen’s messenger calls them to the castle, May discovers there is a deception taking place. A deer’s heart represents murder, a sin the royal governess never confessed. The elder sin eater’s refusal to devour it seals her fate, she is taken away and May knows she herself must partake of the deer’s heart if she has any chance to save her mentor. But nothing ever goes to plan, and she has become trapped herself in the deceit at the royal court. How can someone who cannot communicate, who others shun so as not to be cursed get to the bottom of such treachery?

One thing is certain, there are many sinners at court and lies can alter even the fate of one’s people. There are many reasons for lies, hunger, fear, pride, vanity, and our own safety.

I enjoyed the story, and the choices May makes in the end. Sometimes we have to embrace what’s thrown at us. It’s a rotten existence, but more than anything it was a unique idea for a novel. I had never heard of sin eaters, just another page in the strange history of human beings. I am always tickled by the old superstitions and folklore and wonder what people of the future will think about our beliefs, traditions one day. I wanted more from May, more fight, more anger and life. I wanted to care about her more, and I was expecting the tale to turn out differently in regards to the mystery at court. Still it was a strange journey and a decent read. And a nod to the book cover art.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Atria Books

The Look-Alike: A Novel by Erica Spindler

 

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“Being around your mother, it’s like she infects you or something.”

One night, one horrific night on campus has followed Sienna Scott for ten years, the night she nearly tripped over the fresh corpse of a murdered young woman. This act of violence, the strange fact that they had both been wearing the same coat plants the seed that maybe it was she the killer was truly after! In the aftermath of the crime, her father believes she is making connections that aren’t there, that Sienna is fragile, like her mother who suffers from a delusional disorder. That her mother has passed on more than her looks to her daughter, that one particular cop (Randall “Randy” Clark) has been getting too close to Sienna and fueling her mad theory that she was the intended victim while trying to catch the killer. The only way to save her from a mental decline is to send her away to London, far away from her mother and the stink of the crime.

Ten years later, her father has been dead for five years, her half-brother left behind to watch over Sienna’s mother feeling resentment and fear that she is falling under her mother’s influence again, adamant still she was the intended victim. His life is crumbling too with his own relationship woes. Sienna longs to move on, to open a restaurant but her plans are being thwarted at every turn and everyone seems to have their own miserable secrets. It isn’t family trouble alone that is reviving the past, the murder case has been re-opened. Officer Randy is once again on the scene, the reason she was sent away to begin with! The cop her family feared was playing with her mind to benefit the investigation all those years ago but he was her friend, he made her feel safer. Her mother is far more frail than Sienna could have imagined, worse than when she left. Afraid of the police, armed with a gun, suspicious even of Sienna’s half-brother Brad and Sienna being home seems to be triggering her mother’s mental decline.

Across the street is the new neighbor Jonathan, renovating the place, a ‘house flipper’. Despite not knowing much about him, there is instant chemistry and desire but with the past haunting her, how does she know who she can trust? Being in his arms is the most exhilarated she has ever felt, maybe it is time to let him in, to finally open up about the torment her life has been since the murder, and to admit that it wasn’t so charmed before growing up with her mother’s illness. She’s had enough playing it safe, if she is meant to fall it may as well be in his arms.

Something is lurking though, and maybe her mother’s paranoia has some basis in reality, maybe Sienna isn’t slipping into a delusional state. But just who would want to kill her, and why?

This novel is just the right blend of mystery, thriller and romance for your winter reading.

Publication Date: January 28, 2019

St. Martin’s Press

The Better Liar: A Novel by Tanen Jones

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She’d loved me, in her own disgusting, sharp-toothed way.

It is often said there is no relationship more fraught than the one between sisters at odds with each-other. In The Better Liar, a joint inheritance forces Leslie to find her little sister Robin Voigt.  Robin, who ran-away from home one night when she was just a teenager, leaving Leslie to always be the responsible daughter, tied to their dying father, forced to care for him to the bitter end. Sure, Robin dropped a line here and there when she needed saving from one jam or another, and daddy always came through, but she never earned a bit of his love and loyalty. Tracking her down in Las Vegas Leslie discovers she is too late, her drug addicted sister is dead, and now what? It’s just like Robin, to do this to her, as if she hasn’t already ruined her life. She isn’t going to see a penny of it now, where is the fairness in that, the inheritance was to be split between them both or no one gets their share, there is nothing she can do, right? Until… she sees Mary.

Mary looks so much like Robin. What if… what if Mary pretended to be Robin, just long enough to sign the paperwork, she can have Robin’s share and go off on her merry little way? Mary understands all too well the need for money, this is ‘the perfect job’, she wants to be an actress, how better to test her mettle than to pretend to be someone else? She is sick of working at the restaurant, and she has her own troubles to escape, it’s a way out of town. Leslie’s plan is wildly crazy, even if she does share a resemblance to the deceased, how could it work? True, Robin was never a part of Leslie’s adult life, never met her husband nor child and has been gone so long surely no one would know what she would have looked like now. Still, it’s a madcap plan, but likely will be a lot of fun and Mary is always one for fun. Leslie tries to keep just enough distance while letting Mary in on the sister’s shared past, there always seems to remain a little mystery and something isn’t right about her. Why does she need her half of the money, what is she hiding? She has quite the cozy life, a handsome, successful husband, beautiful son whom she doesn’t seem to want Mary (aka Robin) to be around. Why is she so unhappy? Is she involved in something, she doesn’t seem to be in financial trouble at all. Why is she lying? She may control the story of her past with Robin’s death, but Mary isn’t so easily led about. She is getting too close for Leslie’s comfort, and Leslie doesn’t owe her a thing beyond their agreed upon plan.

Robin’s fading, she’s nothing but a ghost now reminiscing about the relationship she had with her sister. Dear Leslie, who once used to care for her like a mother, since her own couldn’t be bothered. Was Robin really too much for people, as her sister seems to have believed, because Robin remembers things quite differently? As Leslie tells Mary things in order to help her become Robin, it doesn’t ring quite true. In fact, with this farce, who is the real schemer now? In her memories, Leslie wasn’t always the stand in mother she tells everyone she was, full of tender love and kindness. There were times she wanted Robin out of sight, when she was tired of caring for her little sister’s every need. She pushed her away first, with her cruelty, Robin well remembers it, there were reasons, things that made Robin’s heart hard. The way Leslie tells it the change in her sister’s temperament happened in junior high, suddenly she was hateful overnight, no rhyme nor reason. As soon as she got her own room she was mean and ugly, but there are two sides to every story, just which version is the truest? Robin loved to feed people stories, as much as she loved the attention she got from boys, even girls, and later men. There was a time she loved her big sister but she knows that Leslie isn’t the responsible, flawless person she portrays to the world. It reminds her of their damaged mother. She tells stories too. Ghosts are all seeing, and with her death, she is able to be more present than her choices in life allowed her to be before. She is now the held breath in the room, lurking in a sense.

Everyone is a liar, but who is The Better Liar?

A dark story about sisterhood and twisted loyalty. The biggest liar wins.

Publication Date: January 14, 2020

Random House

Ballantine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Family Upstairs: A Novel by Lisa Jewell

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I was a strange boy. I can see that now. I’ve since met boys like me: slow to smile, intense, guarded and watchful.

Lisa Jewell’s novels seem to be descending into darker territory and I absolutely love it! This is a novel about a sinister invasion, but it’s not demons or ghosts that will destroy the Lamb family. How could trying to make your wife happy be a bad thing? It will require changes, surely, but it isn’t outside Henry’s reach, it doesn’t require more than acceptance. By the end, both Martina and Henry will be dead from a suicide pact, according to police reports anyway. The two teenage Lamb children will be unaccounted for and the baby ( possibly 10 months old) the sole survivor among the dead.This baby girl, Libby Louise Jones has just turned 25 and is stunned to learn she is the sole owner of her biological parent’s mansion left to her in a trust,  ‘on the finest street in Chelsea’. This changes everything, no longer will she have to scrimp and save, nor make compromises in life, now- her adoptive mother tells her ‘you’ll be a very rich woman indeed.’ 

The house remembers what was and has been waiting, despite the years it’s been closed up, even if Libby was too young to absorb everything that led to that ill fated day in 1977, the traces remain like a haunt. The story begs to be told, and there are others who have been waiting for Libby too. One person in particular in another part of the world, and they know more than they can stomach, for they have been living their own nightmare, dealing in lies, subterfuge and know all too well the weight of identity. As she researches the chilling story of her own origins, she paints a terrifying picture, shocked to learn she had siblings  is the least of it the bigger jolt is that they seemed to vanish without a trace. Worse, there were more bodies, other missing children- what exactly was her biological family caught up in? This birthday gift is a trapdoor that will take her into a chilling past. Every answer comes with bigger questions. Why were they living in poverty? Her father Henry came from wealth, heir to his father’s money, so what went wrong? Who were these other people, why were they living in her parent’s home? What about the robes, were they a cult?

Without giving away the story, the sheer terror for children is the control, the power of the adult world. There are many ways mommy and daddy can fail their children, not every trauma comes from a raised fist. There are a million ways to neglect duty, the Lambs’ demise is in opening their home. Minds close, purses tighten, blindness sets in and their entire world shrinks within the walls of the gorgeous home.  There can only be one head of this family, naturally it will be the most charismatic force and it will be the collapse of them all.

As Libby unearths every skeleton of the past and attempts to assemble the remains of her family, every truth also contains the germ of a lie. Before the end, she will uncover the entire tale, and discover that the things she imagined all her life about her biological family pales in comparison to the twisted reality of just who they were.

I can’t wait for Lisa Jewell’s next novel. She writes of the fractures within’ families so perfectly, because often the things people do really come out of nowhere and leave you wondering if you knew them, and let’s face it sometimes yourself, at all.

Publication Date: November 5, 2019

Atria Books

All That’s Bright and Gone: A Novel by Eliza Nellums

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There is a woman who is crying in the corner, real quiet. I don’t like it when grown-ups cry. Most of all I don’t like it when Mama cries.

Aoife (pronounced EE-fah, which the adults never seem to get right) is caught up in the confusion and chaos of all the grown-ups around her. She understands the meaning of gone. Gone is forever, gone is DEAD– just like her big brother Theo. She knows better than to talk about it or ask questions, he was murdered and Mama can’t stomach the grief. She has a vague memory of him, one day on the beach, she was lost and he found her, but it’s all so muddied. Luckily for Aoife, she has a constant companion, Teddy who isn’t imaginary no matter what people say! She can see him clear as she sees her best friend Hannah, so he is real! He is a bear! It isn’t smart to talk about him though, especially not to the ladies Dr. Pearlman sends from sea-pee-ess. Sea-pee-ess are government people that help families, but if you say things that seem weird they might take it the wrong way. One thing is certain, the adult world is confusing! Theo’s murder isn’t the only mystery, her whole life feels like one.

Siobhan (her Mama)  has gone away, but she isn’t gone away like Theo, she can and will return at some point. Something is wrong inside of her and it all goes back to the day she broke her own rule of talking to people who aren’t there. Mama was so angry, yelling at her dead son. The doctors just need Aoife’s help trying to understand the incident, and looking for someone to take care of her while Mama is away. There is no daddy for Aoife, she is special, she was born in the cabbage patch, it’s a fact- her Mama told her! There is an Uncle Donny, her mother’s younger brother  and he tries his best to care for her (after all, he is a single, childless bachelor) but he can’t keep Aiofe from running off with Hannah, trying to gather clues and weed out suspects of  her brother’s murder.

Uncle Donny knows Mama’s sickness is confusion sickness. He understands the deep disappointment Aoife feels, Mama promised to take her to see the fireworks this year, but if she’s away she won’t be able to go.  He also understands and says it’s okay if she doesn’t always miss Theo, but any mention of her brother is met with “let’s not talk anymore about Theo today.” No one ever seems to ever want to talk about him. Hannah gets secret messages in dreams, Hannah is older and is going to be a detective one day.  She can talk about Theo to her! Hannah even dreamed about him. Can she solve the crime still if Hannah abandons her? Soon, Aoife begins to wonder if her family really is crazy, like people say. But the church has saints and the holy ghost, that’s not crazy.

Could Mama’s friend Mac be a killer? He is sort of strange and angry. All she wants is to escape to the Secret Place that Teddy discovered. Teddy is trying to tell her something, all the time, but it doesn’t make sense. Uncle Donny is doing his best with Mama gone but he isn’t the greatest looking after her. What if the big bad man comes to drag her off to the Children’s Prison like Hannah warned her would happen?

Everything is happening fast, adults are telling her things that she can’t comprehend, the story of her family is different than what Mama has told. What if she is ill, like her mother, maybe Teddy isn’t real! Even he is starting to scare her. Is she crazy? If memory is tricky, it’s a foreign language for a six year old. In the interest of protecting the innocence of a child, adults often aim for silence, which leaves an imaginative kid like Aiofe to construct a world so far removed from reality that what she believes to be concrete fact is more painful than the truth. Mental illness swims through the story, it’s disheartening because there is no doubt Aiofe and Sibohan (her mother) love each other, but she slips away when the meds are wrong and the stresses of life are magnified when you also have to cope with your health. The world is often kinder if your illness is physical rather than mental, not to say it’s easy either way, but the stigma of mental illness is cruel when children catch wind of it. Worse, there is always the looming threat that if Sibohan can’t keep it altogether, Aiofe can be taken away! Our little Aiofe, at six, is becoming aware of what society deems normal vs. abnormal and just where her family fits. There is hope, and I think Uncle Donny beautifully explained what being sick for Sibohan means. Sure, you may not be cured, but you can be treated to live with it better. I like that, that’s reality.

I was surprised as much as Aiofe by the revelation of what happened to Theo and I felt as frustrated and confused as she did. There is this strange span of time when you’re still not fully present, your mind is just giving birth to reasoning, it’s developing and you are learning to distinguish between emotions, facts, and fantasy.  This is where Aiofe is. I especially like what happened with she and Hannah, because kids can be fair-weather friends sometimes and mean as snakes not because they’re terrible beings, but because they are immature. It made the story far more genuine. Well done, this will be released later in the year, add it to your December TBR list.

Publication Date: December 10, 2019

Crooked Lane Books

Tell No One by Barbara Taylor Sissel

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Come back, come back, come back, as if his return- her family’s restoration to their once-upon-a-time life- were a matter of asking, or begging, or any words at all.

Caroline’s aunt Lanie is dying and desperate to see her brother, Garret “Hoff” Hoffman before she passes away. Caroline’s mother tells her ‘it’s a fool’s errand’ to even try, no one knows where he disappeared to, only that he left a trail of heartbreak behind. What caused her once loving dad to walk away? But Caroline’s beloved aunt is more like a mother to her, salvation during the years after her parents divorced. Caroline’s tender early memories seem to arise more lately and when she returns to the past and seeks out coach Kelly, she finds it troubling that his son Jace seems to be hiding something, protecting his now elderly father. Once a boy she spent happy days with, he seems to want to dodge ever question she puts to his father, even though the old coach wants to reminisce, adamantly telling her ‘dad needs to rest.’ A warning comes soon after in the form of an ‘accident’, someone really is trying to keep her from finding out what happened to her father.

Harris is the child who Hoff raised for a time when he abandoned his old life, and Caroline. Harris looked up to Hoff, with football in common as Hoff was a recruiter, he finally had a man to emulate and love, but those days are buried and he is haunted by his own terrible guilt now that he himself is a father.  One thing Caroline and Harris have in common is their failing marriages. The cracks in Caroline’s life is all about her husband Rob’s lies and betrayals, his devious business dealings but for Harris it is his increasing nightmares, closing his wife Holly out. There are some shameful secrets that cannot be told, not even to his wife but there are other things to turn to when trying to tame one’s demons. His life appears perfect on paper with his career, his beautiful sons and loyal wife. But the past can’t be buried.

Truth will out, but it isn’t always what you imagine. Bad guys, good guys sometimes the distance is only a hair’s breadth between the two. If grave moments could only remain hidden and not rise up to torment us, then the past wouldn’t haunt. In seeking answers, Caroline must come to terms with what she built up as her father’s reasons in her mind with the truth. Harris was everything Caroline could never be, the perfect son! Right? Accidents and incidents have long reaching consequences. Many of Caroline’s choices of the heart stem from feeling discarded by her father, as far back as her high school years. We are shaped by other’s actions sometimes, even when we consciously attempt to remain unaffected. At times the hand of fate, chance turns us into someone we’re not, and there is no reasoning with it. This novel dips into several stories, Caroline and her daughter reeling after discovering Rob’s deceptive crimes, while she is trying to confront her past and find her father. Holly and Harris drifting apart because he cannot confide what disturbs him. Their sons Kyle and Connor his pride but there is a wild struggle within Harris to be a better father than his own influence and yet he is failing, railing against himself. Everything that has happened returns to the moment when Caroline was still the apple of her daddy’s eyes, until her father’s fall in the stands.

This is a solid story, engaging but sometimes I wanted to stay in Caroline’s world and felt pulled in many directions. Hoff’s tale is interesting, sometimes the biggest threat doesn’t come from outside of us, but within.

Publication Date: May 14, 2019

Lake Union Publishing